Saturday, August 27, 2011

Importance of Characters in Space Opera

   This is an unplanned for addition to my post, 5 Essentials for Space Opera, written on request. So here I go, exploring the last frontier in space opera (for me anyways).
    Let me back up a bit to give some definitions of space opera and some for hard SF. Hard SF isn't very dramatic or melodramatic in some cases. It's serious, and focuses more on the science than the characters or story. The laws of physics are absolute and can not be broken. Hard SF is quite popular in books and often is what give SF the adjective "atheistic." Many are. I haven't read any that aren't, but there are probably some out there.
   Space opera, on the other hand, is the opposite. Space opera focuses on the grand scales of conflict, adventure, and personal conflict or drama. Rules of physics are there to be broken, often literally. Space opera has very little regard for current science.
   I italicized the personal conflict or drama (And shall continue to do so) because it's what truly what drives space opera and puts a head and shoulders above the other genres. (Military SF, Golden Age, and steam/diesel-punk come close). It's the characters.
  Stories about aliens, galactic empires, epic starships, aren't exactly relatable. Stories about inter-familial conflicts are. Aliens, rebellions, starships, and scruffy rogues just make them more interesting than your average soap opera or random neighbor down the street. We know how how personal problems feel; the nervousness, the indecision, the fear. That sickening, roiling feeling in the stomach. You know what I'm talking about.
  I'm not sure how much more I can say; so I'll provide examples.
Star Wars: The Original Trilogy: Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, R2-D2, and C-3PO are the driving charters in these three movies. Luke is the main character whose change and growth along the lines of the Heroes Journey is the main subject for the story. Han and Leia create the romantic sub-plot. Their fights; reconciliations, and acceptance draws viewers along for the movies. R2 and C-3PO add comic relief and aid in repairing damaged X-Wings. They add humor to what could otherwise be a grim affair.
  Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: The driving characters are Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chancellor Palpatine, Padme Amidala, and Anakin Skywalker. Anakin and Padme are the two main driving characters; their forbidden romance brings about Anakin's fall to the Dark Side. Palpatine facilitates it and drives the entire Clone Wars with his schemes. Obi-Wan tries to keep Anakin on the good side, as well as healthy and fine. Their interactions make what could be a standard pre-war conspiracy story in a galaxy far, far, away into a tense and emotionally rich story.
  Star Trek: The Original Series: (Are you seeing a pattern?) The driving characters are, of course, Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and Doc McCoy. Spock and McCoy are the most relatable; since they're great friends yet constantly argue with each other. Kirk adds some philosophy, and Scotty adds somewhat of common sense.

 Without unique characters who don't have conflicting personalities, space opera can quickly fall into unbearable melodrama.


  1. If you think hard SF is "serious" or lacking in drama by nature, you've been reading the wrong hard SF. "Hard" SF imposes a different, stricter set of constraints, but every setting imposes some constraints---a present-day action story can't plausibly have a chase scene on horseback across New England for miles and miles without encountering automobiles, for example. And just as Regency romances have more romantic tension built-in than romances set in the present day (because family disapproval, or class discrepancy, for example, were real and serious obstacles in the Regency era, with no present-day analogues), hard SF bakes in real constraints on characters' actions.

    Good fiction is good fiction, regardless of genre or setting. For some dramatic, character-driven hard SF, I'd recommend watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and reading (well, anything by Larry Niven, but ...)

  2. It's mostly been Heinlein and some Asimov that I've been reading in hard SF. A lot have to much science for me.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. OK, Asimov I'll grant you; he's notorious for characters as props rather than, well, characters. But that, like all his characters with odd phobias on which stories turn that are never justified in the slightest, is Asimov, not Asimov-writing-hard-SF. On the other hand, a lot of Asimov isn't really "hard SF" either---the Foundation series, for example, is if anything space opera.

    Heinlein, though ... Heinlein varies. There are those weird stories that aren't really science fiction, except they're even less anything else. And there are some science-heavy stories, and some that are heavy on technology but not science per se---what leaps to mind is the novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel, in which everything is either probably then-current tech (Kip's spacesuit) or handwaved (plausibly handwaved, for those of us who'd want to check his math if he'd provided it, but handwaved nonetheless). And then there's his later stuff, when he was such a big name that he didn't have to play nice with the ALA to get published, where he stopped giving (IMO highly interesting) infodumps on science and technology and started giving infodumps on culture, morality, and politics.

    I think there may be a continuum of science fiction, ranging from hyper-Asimov (characters as props, but the science is explained correctly in loving detail) to something that you can hardly call science fiction because the setting---the "science"---doesn't even make sense and contradicts itself all over. The border of your "comfort zone" seems to be a bit farther toward the latter than mine, but allergies to the trappings aside, like I said, "good fiction is good fiction."

  4. I'll read just about anything, but lots of stuff on science kills me.


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